Tulgsh had no need for subtlety as he leapt across the waters of the bog. Every ripple told a tale he read as he moved, and none of those tales brought him any joy. Two days now he had been trailing one of the village shamans from one of the northern settlements, moving closer, ever closer, to the gaping Maw in the ground. The mouth of the underworld that belched sickness and death into the swamps. It was an affront, a corruption, one that even the High One's magic did nothing to abate.
He held up a webbed hand, clenching it into a fist. Around him, three other hunters landed in the water, their legs bending immediately to sink most of their bodies beneath the surface. Tulgsh alone stood, the muscles around his scent-holes twitching as his tongue snatched a fly from the air for him to chew idly.
"Smell something, Tops?" One of the three, Murg, bubbled the question from under the water.
"We're getting close. The smell's changing, but Shaman Brukch was still alive when he passed through here."
"You think he'll be hopping when we find him, boss?" Pockets bubbled this time, though Tulgsh didn't give him a look, and instead kept his gaze scanning through the bog around them.
"If we're not quick enough, none of us will be hopping for long. Pockets, you and Nhokh head upriver from here and see if you can catch his scent. Murg, you're with me."
The two hunters nodded their assent and leapt off, catching on the low branches of a tree overgrown with tangling vines and vaulting away into the darkness. Tulgsh crouched, pausing a second before pumping his legs open and jumping into a new run while Murg followed close behind. Amongst the scent of their quarry mixed with the pungent flavor of the swamp, Tulgsh sensed the fear amongst his compatriots - few ventured this close to the Maw and lived, and many who dared try were amongst the Forglar's most skilled tracker-hunters. Brukch was a shaman of no mean skill, and though the Forglar were a hardy people, rumours spoke of dangers about the Maw that no hunter or shaman could survive against. In his heart, Tulgsh knew there was little chance they would find the rogue shaman alive. He remembered that he said as much to the village's eldest shaman.
Tulgsh and his team had just finished escorting some young hoppers to the Temple of the Source and were returning to their village by a roundabout route. Stopping at the settlement to take a meal and resupply, they heard of the shaman's disappearance and inquired about it. They were a hunting party after all - no other hoppers in the swamp could find lost things as skillfully.
The elder shaman, ancient by Forglar standards, hobbled his way to a chair of woven reeds and sat down as soon as Tulgsh swam into his home. "I'm told you're quite the hunter, Tracker Tulgsh," he said, gumming a lotus petal as round, milky eyes looked in the tracker's direction.
"The High One's best, Elder. There's nothing in the swamp we cannot find."
The elder stamped his cane on the wooden planks at his feet and wheezed a chuckle. "Good! Very good! Then I'm confident you will find my errant assistant, Brukch. He went searching for some medicine herbs north of the village a week ago and has not returned. It's never taken him more than maybe two days to make the journey and come back, so we are certainly concerned."
Tulgsh pondered for a moment, remembering what was around the outskirts of this village with little effort. "The Maw of the Underworld lies to the north."
"Maw of the what?"
The tracker sighed quietly. "We'll leave immediately. If we have not returned in four days, send word to the High One."
That was two days ago. Clues of the shaman's passing were few and far between, but they nonetheless led them on a trail to the north. Other signs of disturbance in the swamp started appearing - footprints in the mud of beasts Tulgsh did not know, deep scratches etched in the bark of ironwood trees. He knew now, at least, that they were drawing ever closer to the Maw.
The change in the smell of everything was enough to set Tulgsh's nerves on end. With Murg behind him, they came to the edge of the great wound in the world and looked down into the darkness, searching for a bottom. The lip of the ragged crevasse was covered in disturbed earth, which kept most of the standing water of the swamps from flowing down in the hole, but a splash here or there sent droplets falling into the void. A red mist seeped up out of it, staining the air a sick color, and Tulgsh bit back a curse as a new scent, some kind of burning rot, wafted up to him from below.
"Tops, over there!" Murg's whisper drew Tulgsh's gaze out of the darkness, and he followed where his companion's arm pointed to a very short tree that stood at the edge of the Maw. Immediately, the hunters leapt through the trees, landing on a pair of gargantuan mushrooms next to the oddity. Tulgsh buried the end of his spear in the mud and set both hands to the vine-covered thing before them.
As Tulgsh pulled the green cords aside, he discovered what he'd feared - what stood before them wasn't a tree, but instead a full-grown hopper in shaman's robes. But the clothing and flesh were turned into wormwood, and the body was sunken and tilted slightly, drawn down into the swamp by large snapvines. Tulgsh heard of this happening to shamans who attempted to draw too much of the swamp's power into themselves - the power backfired, and the swamp reclaimed it from the life of the foolish wielder. Clutched in the bark-covered fingers of the transformed shaman was his gnarled staff, already covered in moss. Around his neck, inexplicably unchanged, was a medicine bag.
"Spirits..." Murg said under his breath. Tulgsh looked at him, knowing the younger hunter had never seen such a thing before.
"Let's get moving. The elder in the village and the High One will..." He broke off, hearing something unexpected behind them. Immediately he shoved Murg hard on his shoulder, sending him tumbling through the muck. There was a sudden sound, and Tulgsh saw two wicked-looking knives buried in the head of the wormwood hopper.
His head whipped around and up, spotting their attacker high in a nearby tree: an elf, or at least something that looked like an elf. Immediately, Tulgsh reached back and grabbed the medicine bag, yanking it hard from the wooden neck that was once flesh. He tossed the bag with its broken cord to Murg and shouted as he pulled his spear back out of the mud: "Find the others, get that to the High One. I'll handle this and catch up!"
Wordlessly, Murg caught the bag in the air and leapt out of the water just as another blade flicked through the air, barely missing his leg as he jumped. Tulgsh didn't spare more than a glance after him as he jumped towards the tree. He saw the purple-skinned elf drop down, landing in a crouch in the mud at the trunk's base, and pull a curved sword from his belt, it's blade barb-toothed like a saw.
The elf shouted something at him, and for a moment Tulgsh thought he understood - it sounded something like the elven tongue of K'thir, but it was much more harsh, more guttural tongue than he remembered. Of course, Tulgsh never had a K'thir ranger come at him with a sword before - either way, the hunter was more concerned with engaging the elf and giving Murg time to escape.
Tulgsh coiled his legs under him and then shot into the air, arcing towards the elf with the point of his spear leveled to skewer him through the chest. The elf dodged to one side, expecting to catch Tulgsh off-balance as he recovered from his leap, but the hunter caught the incoming slash with the haft of his spear. He dug one webbed foot into the mud and kicked up, splashing cloudy water and earth in the elf's direction, but his enemy reacted by flipping back, landing in a crouch and shouting at him again.
Tulgsh wasted no time translating - it was possible, from the way the elf's white eyes looked about in panic, that he was calling for reinforcements. The hunter knew he would be hard-pressed with more than one opponent, especially if they were all twice his size like this elf. He made a small hop towards his enemy, stabbing his spear through the surface of the water to try and pin the elf's foot to the earth, but was a stroke late, his spearpoint digging into the mud. The elf swung his wicked sword down, but it was Tulgsh's turn to dodge. Using his spear as a vault, Tulgsh upended himself, bringing his webbed feet together and kicking up into the elf's chin. He heard a sharp crack as the stunned elf's mouth was forcibly shut, and his enemy fell back on his haunches.
As soon as his feet were in the water again, Tulgsh pulled his spear out of the earth, whirled it through the air above his head, and brought the point down to punch a hole in the elf's bare chest. His enemy twitched as he screamed, blood oozing out of his ruined mouth. Tulgsh drew one foot up and planted it on the elf's neck, pushing his head underwater. A few heartbeats later, the elf stopped moving and Tulgsh fought to catch his breath. He pulled his spear out, but then heard something behind him.
His eyes searched for the source of the noise until he saw it - a large, bloodstained paw gripped the edge of the Maw, grasping for purchase amongst the mud and roots that ringed the hole. Something told Tulgsh he didn't want to see what it was that answered the corrupted elf's cry for help, but before he knew it...
A giant wolf-beast, towering more than half again the height of the elf he'd just killed, clambered up over the edge of the Maw and roared. Tulgsh pitched his spear at the monster's throat only to see it caught in one huge paw and snapped in half effortlessly. The hunter turned and immediately leapt away, his legs pumping harder with every jump to try and gain some distance on the monster.
Seconds rushed by as Tulgsh ventured glances over his shoulder, seeing the wolf-beast gaining on him despite everything he was doing to escape. His eyes lingered on the size of the beast's huge claws for an instant too long - the log he was leaping towards was hollow and rotted, and he crashed through it, hitting the water unprepared. One foot sunk deep into tough mud, and Tulgsh struggled to pull free, panicking as the beast bore down on him.
He watched as the giant wolf-thing coiled and jumped into the air, a throaty howl erupting from its jaws as it came in for the kill. Tulgsh looked away despite himself, afraid to face this terrible end, but suddenly the surface of the swamp erupted before him, sending mud everywhere.
He wiped the mud from his eyes and looked again, seeing now that the beast was caught in the grip of an equally huge octopus, its eyes a red rage and its tentacles curled around the wolf-beast's straining limbs. Quickly, Tulgsh drew his leg out of the now-loosened mud and scrambled back away from the grisly scene before him, as the unyielding arms of the swamp octopus constricted his would-be killer.
With a sharp snapping sound, the wolf-beast's back was bent to an unnatural angle, and its agonized death-howl was heard only as a gurgle. The octopus descended back into the murk as suddenly as it appeared. Tulgsh could only watch in amazement as the octopus and it's fresh meal vanished, leaving only scant bubbles in the inscrutable water in its wake.
The tracker stood, his chest heaving. The shock of the moment took longer to pass, but it was not long before he was hopping after Murg, blowing his signal whistle so that Nhokh and Pockets would know to form up with them. The High One needed to hear this news as fast as possible - the Maw is still open, and its evil is spreading...